How the Cinderella Boys finally went to the ball

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Soaring across the sky, the mighty Short Sunderland flying boat always exuded a sense of majestic grace. That aura of class reflected its original development as a pioneering airliner in the 1930s, adored by its passengers for its luxury and reliability.

But during the Second World War, when it was one of the mainstays of the RAF's maritime operations, crews admired the plane for another reason: its bristling resilience in the face of the enemy.

In the newest versions of the Sunderland, the impressive weaponry comprised no fewer than 16 machine guns. Indeed, the Germans called it the "Flying Porcupine" because of its capacity to dish out punishment.

Never was that nickname more justified than on June 2, 1943, when a Sunderland of 401 squadron, piloted by Australian Colin Walker, was on an anti-submarine patrol over the Bay of Biscay.

Suddenly the tail gunner identified a group of eight Ju-88 enemy fighters. Having ordered his crew to take up their positions at the guns, Walker tried to climb to the safety of cloud cover, but it was too late.

Drawing close, the Germans launched a series of attacks, inflicting wounds on every crewman and extensive damage to the British aircraft. Yet they were the ones who experienced the most wreckage. After a remarkable encounter lasting 45 minutes and involving 20 attacks, just two Ju-88s survived.

READ MORE: WWII vet's quest to find D-Day shipwreck and build a memorial to lost shipmates

Their pilots decided retreat was the sensible option. Meanwhile, with one crewman dead and two engines out of action,Walker successfully nursed his plane back to England.

He subsequently received the DSO and the personal congratulations of RAF Chief Sir Charles Portal, who wrote that "this epic battle will go down in history as one of the finest instances in this war of the triumph of coolness, skill and determination against overwhelming odds".

As I relate in my new book, Cinderella Boys, so-named because the service was initially overlooked and underfunded, Walker's Sunderland squadron was part of RAF Coastal Command, which played the vital wartime roles of protecting Allied convoys, challenging the deadly U-boats and destroying German shipping.

It was exhausting, dangerous work which often involved long hours under grey skies, and over turbulent waters, "fighting the elements as much as the enemy, but when the tense moment came, going in undaunted at point blank range against heavy fire", in the words of Sir John Slessor, Coastal Command's chief in 1943.

Peter Beswick, a Wellington airman, recalled that "virtually all the hours of our flights were over the sea and it was pretty tiring. You were always looking down at the North Atlantic, which you knew would be bloody cold if you went down into it".

Coastal Command's motto was "Constant Endeavour" and its crews fully lived up to that spirit. They were the first in the RAF to see action in September 1939, the last to finish duties in May 1945.

During those fateful years, 240,000 sorties were flown by the Command's crews who spent 1.3 million hours in the air. More than 4,200 tons of depth charges were dropped, 10,200 rocket projectiles fired and 1,200 mines laid.

Every part of this service worked tirelessly. Its Photographic Reconnaissance Unit took more than three million images. Its meteorological flights undertook around 12,000 missions. More than 10,500 people were saved by its air sea rescue operations.

Without Coastal Command, neither the victory in the Battle of the Atlantic nor the triumph of the Normandy landings would have been possible.

Over the six years of the war, the service sank at least 209 German submarines and badly damaged another 290, while from March 1941, when anti-shipping missions began in earnest, the Command sank 273 German vessels. In all this diligence, extraordinary heroism was often displayed.

Four airmen from Coastal Command won the Victoria Cross, three of them posthumously. One of these brave recipients was David "Bud" Hornell of 162 Squadron who had been on a 10-hour patrol north of Scotland on June 24, 1944, when his Catalina flying boat spotted a German submarine five miles ahead.

But as the Catalina went into a dive, the U-boat was ready to counter attack with a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Shells ripped through the Catalina's wings, aerials, fuselage and starboard engine, which was quickly engulfed in flames.

Yet Hornell refused to give up. Despite his own severe burns, he tore down on the target and dropped the depth charges with perfect accuracy on the U-boat, which quickly sank below the surface. Forced to ditch his blazing et atable aircraft, he managed to get his seven-man crew into an inflatable dinghy, but he succumbed to his wounds and exhaustion just as a rescue vessel arrived.

Altogether, 8,180 aircrew and 694 ground crew from Coastal Command were killed in action.

The scale of the sacrifice makes it all the more regrettable that Coastal Command never received the credit it deserved for its part in winning the war. That indifference was he e beca partly because the nature of the Command's work, dominated by long, solitary patrols, lacked the chivalrous glamour of fighter squadrons or the pulverising intensity of the heavy bomber missions to Germany.

But the disdain also mirrored a deeper culture of neglect towards the RAF's maritime operations, which meant that, at the start of the war, Coastal Command's fleet was hopelessly small and obsolete, epitomised by the anachronistic Vickers Wildebeest biplane.

So short of planes was the Command in 1940 that its chief, Frederick Bowhill, even deployed ancient Tiger Moth trainers on what were called "scarecrow patrols" to act as a visual deterrent to the enemy.

In trying to modernise and expand his force, Bowhill was up against two immovable objects near the start of the war.

One was the creed of the Air Staff, for whom the strategic bombing of Germany was the only true purpose of the RAF. Sir Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command from early 1942, held such an extreme version of this view that, as he told Churchill, he regarded the Coastal arm as "an obstacle to victory".

The other problem was the complacency of the Admiralty, which argued before the war that Coastal Command was largely an irrelevance since the menace of the U-boat had been supposedly nullified by Royal Navy's ASDIC sonar device that could detect submarines at sea.

"The U-boat will never again be able to present us with the problem we faced in 1917," declared an Admiralty paper of 1937, referring to the crisis during the First World War when Allied supply lines were in danger of being severed.

But towards the end of 1940, the Admiralty had to face up to the reality of its mistake. With the bullish Labour politician A V Alexander at the helm, it not only became a strong advocate of a greatly-expanded, more effective Coastal Command, but also agitated for the entire service to be transferred from the RAF to its control.

This cause was taken up with a passion by Lord Beaverbrook, the mercurial, energetic owner of the Daily Express who had been made Minister for Aircraft Production in Churchill's coalition.

The Air Staff fiercely objected and the new chief Sir Charles Portal even threatened to resign. But in the end, a compromise was reached whereby Coastal Command would remain part of the RAF but "operational control" would be handed to the Admiralty.

It was the start of a major transformation in the effectiveness of Coastal Command.

There were bigger orders for more modern planes, like the Lockheed Hudson, the pugnacious Bristol Beaufighter and the versatile de Havilland Mosquito, known as the "Wooden Wonder", due to its unique construction.

New radar equipment for tracking U-boats was installed, while Coastal planes were made much more effective by the introduction of a new type of airborne spotlight named after its inventor, Humphrey de Verd Leigh.

The Command was also provided with a highly innovative Operational Research Section, at first headed by the brilliant, Leftwing Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Patrick Blackett, who came up with a host of practical suggestions, such as painting Coastal's aircraft white so they could not be so easily spotted by German lookouts against the sky, and dropping depth charges from an optimum height of 25 feet.

With growing confidence, the Command gained new bases in the Azores, Iceland, West Africa and Gibraltar, and new specialist antishipping wings, complete with rocket-projectiles and large fighter escorts.

Bigger figures succeeded Bowhill as Commander: first the sophisticated Philip Joubert de la Ferte, who fought tooth and nail to get more long-range aircraft, particularly the huge American B-24 Liberator to cover the Atlantic.

Once again, the Air Staff felt strategic bombing should have the first claim on any new heavyweight planes, but Joubert's successor, Sir John Slessor, who took over in early 1943, forcefully joined the Admiralty in pressurising the American and British governments for more aerial maritime support in the Atlantic.

After a harrowing month in March 1943, when the U-boats sank a staggering 693,000 tons of Allied shipping, the influx of Liberators saw a dramatic fall in losses. "It is no longer any fun to sail in a U-boat," one German submariner complained after being captured.

A year later, Slessor was succeeded by Sholto Douglas, a powerful character whose RAF career had been undermined by his attachment to socialism and his chaotic, promiscuous private life. He took charge at Coastal Command's zenith, when the service had more than 900 aircraft and a workforce of 82,000, including 17,000 female WAAFs.

The effectiveness of this force was dramatically proved on D-Day, when not a single German submarine reached the English Channel. Churchill sent Douglas a telegram congratulating Coastal on the "vital part" it had played "in making possible the great operations now going forward in France".

By the end of the war, Douglas was able to boast that he had "formidable air power under my control".

It had not always been so. But wisdom had prevailed in finally appreciating the warwinning potential of the Command, built on the courage of its crews.

  • Cinderella Boys: The Forgotten RAF Force That Won The Battle Of The Atlantic by Leo McKinstry (John Murray, £25) is published on Thursday [8th june]. For free UK P&P, visit or call 020 3176 3832
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